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Culture At A Crossroads: Corona Edition with Mike Schreiner

Mike Schreiner is the leader of the Green Party of Ontario and the MPP for Guelph, the first-ever Green MPP elected to the Ontario Legislature. Mike was elected leader of the Green Party of Ontario in 2009 and became MPP with a resounding 45% of the vote in his riding in the 2018 provincial election.

Amid COVID-19 Mike has been very vocal in opposition. He has both contributed to and challenged the legislation that Premier Ford has passed in Ontario thus far. In this special ‘Culture At A Crossroads’ interview, we consider how the Coronavirus has helped unify the political parties. Mike will explain how he helped shape the Ontario Relief Package, what he’s suggesting to better protect tenants and landlords in Ontario. He’ll also share why he thinks the province has responded well to education, and what still needs to happen to ensure Ontario’s most vulnerable are taken care of.

The following is the transcript from the Culture At A Crossroads podcast interview.

DM: Mike Schreiner, thanks so much for taking this time.

MS: Oh, my pleasure to join you, David.

DM: We're in a really interesting time in Ontario and in the world. What's it been like for you just to be responding to a crisis like COVID-19?

MS: Yeah. You know, it feels a bit like you're living in a movie to some extent, and I'm sure everyone is, is feeling this.

You know, my days are spent at home mostly and doing video calls with constituents, business groups, healthcare providers, other politicians and parties, etc. You know, it's trained to be doing all of these meetings that normally you would do face to face via video conference.

And then to have one issue, obviously just dominate, everything that you talk about, everything that you do. And then, you know the other thing that's been striking for me is something I've been saying is we need to court quarantine partisanship and really work across party lines to put people first. Do everything we can to save lives to make sure we alleviate the economic impact that's so negative on so many people and local businesses.

And, you know, it's been an unprecedented degree of working across party lines at Queens park. And, you know, while I don't agree with everything the government is doing, and while I, you know, continue to work hard to hold the government accountable and do my job as an opposition member. I'm also doing everything I can to work across party lines to make sure we get things done that really help people.

And especially right now, you know, provide frontline healthcare workers and frontline service providers. You know, everyone, delivery drivers and transit drivers, grocery store clerks, and others who are providing essential services. Help people get the things they need every day, and to take care of them when they're sick. It's been a really unprecedented time.

DM: Now you voted in favour of Ontario's relief package. On the whole, you were in support of this -kind of coming back to wanting to be a team player, but there were a couple of things that you raised in particular: more cash flow for small businesses and also better funding for a rent

relief. Could you just elaborate on why those things are important to you at this time?

MS: Yeah, and I would also add additional funding for healthcare equipment as well. So personal protective equipment, PPE, making like, I think the government hasn't allocated sufficient funds for a PPE. We're hearing from frontline nurses, doctors, personal support workers that they don't have the protective equipment they need to do their jobs and to keep themselves safe.

Why? They're taking care of us. I'm deeply concerned about people's ability to be able to pay rent, put food on the table, and pay their bills.

And so, I've been really advocating hard for a universal basic income. I advocated that for that before this crisis. And I think this crisis highlights the inadequacies of our current social assistance programs and supports for people. And then I've also been advocating for additional cash flow relief for small businesses. I'm deeply worried that a lot of our downtown's, and you know, my riding and Guelph downtown, I love the vibrancy of our downtown.

I love, you know, supporting the local businesses there. I love what it does for bringing our community together, and I think people experience that in small towns and big cities across the province. I mean, even in big cities like Toronto, pockets of streets all over the place. Commercial areas that almost feel like a small town within a big city.And so, I'm just worried that then, you know, our small towns and our big cities. That you're going to see a loss of a lot of those local businesses if they don't get the support they need to get through this crisis. And, and I think that's gonna reduce the vibrancy of our communities and, and ultimately our quality of life.

And so, you know, keeping people alive is the number one priority. And making sure that our healthcare system has the resources it needs. Secondly, we have to deal with the economic fallout that people are experiencing. And I think that's providing direct relief to individuals and families. And I think we have to keep, you know, our businesses afloat because as we emerge out of this crisis, we want people to have a job to go back to.

DM: Talk to me about some of the things that you like in this relief package because you did vote in favour of it.

MS: Yeah. Well, I think it was important to get money out the door as soon as possible. And so, there is additional funding for healthcare, a little over $3 billion. And so, I thought that was important. There are some measures that support people in businesses, uh, that I'd been advocating for. So, one is an increase in the employer health tax exemption, which reduces payroll taxes for small businesses to help them with cash flow challenges through this crisis. A deferral of a certain taxes and payments such as their WSIB. Payments and things like that, which will help with the cash flow for local businesses. I did advocate for financial stabilization funds for shelters and food banks and other social service agencies that are serving the most vulnerable in our communities.

There was money for that. I would have been pushing really hard for a deferral. Municipalities, a portion or property tax that goes to fund education. I'm deeply worried that our municipalities are going to be facing, cash flow situations as people are just not able to pay their property taxes.

So, there's some items like that in there that I was supportive on the floor of the house in debate. I looked at the Premier and I talked about the fact that I felt that this package was inadequate, it needed to do more, but that I was also going to vote to support it because I thought it was critically important that we get money out the door as soon as possible to address this issue and that some of the things that I wanted to see in the budget that wasn't there, that hopefully we could, you know, I'm going to continue to push for that and, and hopefully see the government act.

Some of the things I had been pushing for the federal government has stepped up. And so probably the biggest one in that regard is we had been pushing for was wage subsidy for businesses when it was at 10% and I had been advocating that it should be a minimum of 75% looking at Denmark and other countries, UK, that had offered higher wage subsidies to help businesses retain their employees. And so, that was something I pushed for provincially.

And I was also talking to my member of parliament who happens to be part of the liberal caucus naturally. And, I know it was something he was advocating for. And it was nice to see the federal government step up and make that announcement because we'd much rather have businesses retain their employees.

People collect a pay check, even if they're not going into work. Uh, then to have those people lose their jobs, have to apply for EI. There's a delay in receiving those EI funds, and then, you know, this crisis we're going to work hard and we're going to, hopefully everyone's going to stay home and practice, you know, proper physical distancing, and we're going to slow the spread of this virus and get on top of it.

And then you know, we're going to emerge out of this crisis, and it would be so much smoother if people are already in their jobs. It can just go right back to work rather than people losing their jobs, being on EI and then having to reapply for, for jobs. And so, it'll be easier for businesses and employees if we can retain as many people in their current positions as possible, which is why the wage subsidy was so important.

DM: And in some countries in Europe, it's even 80% isn't it? Like, isn't that what it is?

MS: Exactly. In the UK It's 80% so that's why I was saying 75, the higher, the better. Because you know, businesses right now, I'm speaking with a number of business owners, in my riding and across the province who, you know, they're up against the wall and, you know, they don't want to lay off their employees, but they have to do it. They have to do, if they can't, they don't have the money to pay them, then you know, they're going to have to lay them off. And so, this wage subsidy will, will certainly help.

DM: Yeah. Just speak to some clarity on, on this wage subsidy, because I understand we're in a crisis. And so obviously one day, you know, the government might say one thing and the next day they're gonna change their mind because maybe a better alternative like this, a higher percentage wage subsidy comes out. So, people that have been laid off. It's not a lot to salvage…

MS: Yeah. So, I think there's a couple things that businesses can do, and, and I caution businesses to make sure that before they take any action, they know exactly what the details are of the government program. So my hope is that some of the businesses who have laid off workers that they might be able to rehire those folks because of the wage subsidy and businesses who have not laid off workers yet.

Hopefully there'll be able to retain those workers because of the wage subsidy. I was pleased to see the government has announced that it's a package that’s available to all businesses and available to those who have seen a 30% decline in their revenue because of COVID-19 and so, you know, I only caution businesses to just make sure you, you really know what you're doing and what the requirements are before you act.

And not only on the wage subsidy, I've had a lot of businesses phoning me about the essential non-essential business list in Ontario, which businesses can legally operate. And those that, you know, are not able to legally operate right now. And I've been referring all of those business owners to the government's 1-800-HOTLINE because if you violate, if you're a non-essential business and you violate that and continue to operate, you're subject to significant fines and even possible jail time.

And so, I want any business that is unclear or unsure about whether or not they're on the list, they need to have that verified by government officials. And so, it's really important to make sure you have clarity and that you have something official if you're unsure in any way.

DM: Did you get much to say on that list? Were you able to contribute to that non-essential/essential workplaces during this time?

MS: Yeah. You know, unfortunately the government didn't consult me and I'm not sure if they consulted in the other opposition parties. I mean, I've been pushing the government to have more robust consultation. I mean, the one good thing I will compliment the government on is, is, a lot of, not all, but a lot of the ministers have reached out to me and, you know, giving me their personal cell numbers and, you know, I can text them or give them a call. And so, having those open lines of communication are important.

The government's indicated that, you know, send us letters, send us ideas, you know, give us your input and we'll take it under consideration. I'd like to see a little more back and forth before announcements are made.

And, so I think that would just lead to better decision making because the opposition members hear from constituents, we hear from businesses, we hear from, from medical experts, and we can provide government with that input to help them make better decisions.

And so, the essential business list as an example of that, and I brought this up in the house during debate.

I've had a number of people reach out to me, particularly around construction sites and saying that, is this construction site really essential? And they have been expressing, and we've seen photos on, you know, TV, social media, etc., places that don't have proper sanitary conditions.

And that, you know, I'm deeply worried, will be places where the virus spreads at a time when we're trying to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus. And so, I think there are some construction sites that should remain open. You know, like building an emergency, you know, field, hospital, for example, some things like that.

But I think that while you're starting to see that in Ontario and Quebec now as well, those types of construction, I can totally see being open. But there are some that, you know, I think are highly questionable how essential they are. And at this point, I think, you know, if you look at what the health experts are saying, having a little more short-term economic pain to help us get on top of the health crisis and slow the spread of the virus and, you know, flatten the curve so we don't have this peak that overwhelms the healthcare system.

To the medium and long-term will be beneficial to the economy because the sooner we can get back to whatever the new normal is going to be in our lives, the sooner the economy will start functioning again. And the longer we go with these restrictions, the more the more it's going to hurt our medium and long-term economic prospects. So, I think, you know, the priority right now should be putting health first, saving lives first. Getting on top of this virus should be the absolute top priority.

DM: Yeah, you got that line. I've heard you mention over the last couple of weeks, “Fiscal prudence shouldn't get in the way right now. People come first.”

MS: Yeah, no, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I don't think anyone in opposition will criticize the government for running deficits right now and unprecedented deficits right now. Because saving lives and slowing the spread of the virus should be our top priority.

And I know the Premier on a few occasions has said, you know, we will spare no expense. Well, I don't see Ontario being as aggressive as it could and should be.

DM: Yeah. I really appreciate how you're trying to look at all aspects of the economy and all people. And one of the issues that you've raised in particular has been in terms of rent. I know the government has responded and in trying to put a stop to people being evicted, but it hasn't maybe gone as far as places like British Columbia. Are you still trying to consult with them on that so that there's a greater support for both landlords and tenants?

MS: Yeah. So, I'm pushing and pushing and pushing. I'm just deeply, deeply worried that, you know, many people can't afford to pay their rent. And that's an incredibly stressful situation for them. And I know the premier has said that, you know, nobody will be evicted. But the bottom line is saying that you're not going to enforce evictions isn't the same as banning eviction.

So, people are receiving eviction notices, and even though those notices won't be enforced, it's incredibly stressful. It’s also going to start creating cash flow issues for landlords. I mean, landlords in many cases, particularly are smaller landlords that you know, don't have big bank accounts.

They oftentimes, they have to pay their mortgage, they have to pay utility bills, they have to pay property taxes, they have to pay for waste pickup and disposal. Like there's a whole host of costs that landlords have. And so, my feeling has been that providing a rent relief fund. We'd create a trickle up economics that would be most beneficial to people.

So, provide tenants with the money they need to pay their rent, and then landlords will have the money to pay their bills. And that keeps money flowing through the economy to the benefit of everyone. But by not doing that and just saying, ‘Oh, hey, don't pay your rent and you won't be evicted.’ That's going to create cash flow stress for tenants and small businesses and their landlords.

And so, this is an incredibly stressful moment for people. The other thing I'm worried about is if you defer payments, you're going to have to make those payments at some point in the future. And so, you might be seeing people who have been without work for a certain length of time, suddenly have big bills to pay, and they're certainly still not going to have the cash flow to pay those bills. And so, I think it would just be better to provide people with emergency support. Right now, pay their rent, relieve the stress on people and small businesses and landlords to me just seems like a much more responsible, prudent, better for the economy, better for people's mental health, better for health in general.

I mean, here we are asking people to stay home and, you know, practice physical distancing and many of those folks are stressed out whether they're gonna still have a home, uh, because you know, they'd been without work for a few weeks now.

DM: And just lastly, I think you'd be in agreement that Ontario has, has kind of led the way as far as schools go, and making the first call that they'd be shut down and an extended March break and bringing in that portal. But some of the concerns that you have raised with this new portal, and now it's for sure that it's going to be at least May before kids come back. But, you're worried about children with special needs, ESL tech access, and low-income families, you know, for students to fall through the cracks for these next few months. What could change and what sort of push back are you giving there?

MS: You know, so I'll give Minister Lecce credit. We, I've had some briefings with him. We've had some meetings. I have a direct line to the minister. And so, I've been supportive of his call to follow public health advice and to close schools down, that was the right call to make. And, I support the fact that the government is looking at ways to help students to continue learning.

You know, it's a challenge. One of my children is in high school right now and, you know, trying to get a teenager to practice learning right now is, is a challenge under these conditions. But I also want to make sure as the government looks at their planning, that they make sure it's done in an equitable way, that they ensure they're engaging teachers in education unions and education support staff in designing how they're providing learning opportunities for students.

Because I recognize that not all families have access to broadband internet. Not all families have access to computers. Not all students can learn online due to a variety of reasons. It could be access reasons, could be an individual student's ability. And so, we need to make sure that we don't leave any student behind, that we have plans in place that address the unique learning needs that many students have. And so, I think one of my jobs as an opposition member is to push the government on these issues. To hold the government accountable on these issues.

And, I believe the minister’s listening and recognizes that those are the kinds of issues we're gonna push and hold the ministry accountable for. And my hope is, is that those efforts will pay off and the government will come forward with a plan that addresses the equity concerns that many people have while also ensuring that we have plans that students can continue learning during this very challenging time.

DM: Well, really appreciate all the work you're doing in the midst of COVID-19.

MS: Thank you, David.

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